A PE teacher, a schoolgirl, an affair, and a dead mother.
The case of missing woman Lynette Dawson lay cold in the archives of the NSW Police for 37 years until two weeks ago.
Queensland Police swooped on a Biggera Waters home to arrest 70-year-old former Newtown Jets rugby league player and former teacher Chris Dawson at the request of NSW Police on Wednesday December 5.
Chris was extradited out of Qld to be charged with the murder of Lynette on December 6, in Sydney, after a he was the subject of a popular investigative ABC podcast by The Australian, called The Teacher’s Pet.
The podcast revealed the sad story of Lynette around the time of her mysterious disappearance from Sydney’s northern beaches on January 9, 1982.
Aged 33, Lynette went missing just days before her husband Chris moved his schoolgirl lover into their family home.
Chris did not report Lynette missing to police for five weeks, telling her family when she went missing, she needed time away from home, and he continues to maintain his innocence.
While Chris maintains he had nothing to do with his wife’s disappearance and the court investigate the matter, the horror case raises key issues over estate law.
Speaking to Attwood Marshall Lawyers, Walkley Award winning journalist Hedley Thomas said the case he investigated for the podcast raised questions over Lynette’s estate.
“When Chris Dawson sold the Bayview home that him and Lynnette owned together, a few years after her alleged murder, it fetched almost $300,000.00,” Hedley said.
“It is now worth more than $2.5m and Chris Dawson has acquired other assets, on the Gold Coast and on the Sunshine Coast, in the decades since his first wife’s sudden disappearance.
“One of Lynette’s two daughters lives in very modest rented accommodation as a single mother to a young child, and it will be interesting to see whether any action might be taken in the event of a murder trial, culminating in a conviction.
“However, it is early days and Chris is entitled to a presumption of innocence over a crime which has always strenuously denied committing.”
Intestacy laws in the case of Lynette Dawson and Chris Dawson
It is not known if Lynette died leaving a valid Will. Chris was potentially able to claim Lynette’s estate after she went missing. If Lynette died without leaving a Will in NSW her estate would have been distributed pursuant to the laws of intestacy. Intestacy provides a statutory formula the distribution of an estate in the absence of a Will. Under the intestacy rules if a person dies and leave a spouse and that person has children with that spouse then the spouse is entitled to the whole of your estate. Chris would have inherited Lynette’s estate on her death. The other likely possibility is that Lynette’s assets (which were primarily comprised of the matrimonial home in Bayview in Sydney’s Northern Beaches) may have been held jointly with her husband, Chris. Under the rules of survivorship the surviving owner under joint tenancy automatically absorbs a dying owner’s share of the property.
Survivorship rules in Estate Law
It is likely after Lynette’s disappearance in the 1980s – Chris would have taken Lynette’s share of the Bayview property under the rules of survivorship. Where a person is not heard from for a period of seven years by those persons who would be expected to have communication with that person, then a Court may presume that person dead. This period may be less depending on the circumstances of the disappearance.
As of 1989 (seven years after Lynette’s disappearance), according to the laws governing distributions of estates in NSW, a Court may have presumed Lynette to be dead and Chris would have been entitled to inherit her estate consisting of the Bayview home, which was constructed using funds provided by Lynette’s parents. The property is now worth over $2 million.
The story of Lynette Dawson, Chris Dawson and his lover
Lynette and Chris were high school sweethearts. They met while they were students at Sydney Girls High and Sydney Boys High. They later married and in 1976, they purchased a block of 4,167sqm bushy acreage at Bayview in Sydney’s Northern Beaches, about 30km north of Sydney City. They contracted a builder to construct an impressive home on the block of land with the financial assistance of Lynette’s parents. Chris’ lawyer, Greg Walsh, said his client “strenuously asserts his innocence”. Two separate coronial inquests recommended the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP) should investigate a “known person” – Chris – for a potential charge of murder. On each occasion, determined there was insufficient evidence to guarantee a reasonable prospect of conviction and does not lay charges.
Chris’s says that Lynette’s abandoned her family and “went to live with a religious cult”. Lynette’s has not been seen or heard from since her disappearance in 1982. Her body has never been found. Two days after her disappearance Chris’ teenage lover moved into the family home in Bayview. In 1983 Chris divorced his missing wife and in January 1984 he married his teenage lover at the property in Bayview. He was 35 and she was 19. After marrying, the pair sold the Bayview property and moved to Qld together and had a daughter. The couple later separated and divorced in around 1990.
Can a murder conviction affect intestacy and beneficiary rules?
If Chris is convicted with Lynette’s murder, this conviction would essentially disqualify Chris from taking any financial benefit from her estate as a beneficiary. This is referred to as the forfeiture rule. The forfeiture rule is a common law principle which provides that where a person is criminally responsible for the death of another from whose estate that person will benefit, then the person’s interest in that property is forfeited. Proceedings under the Forfeiture Act are commenced by summons in the Equity Division of the Supreme Court of NSW.
Under the forfeiture rule, the person who has committed a crime is also excluded from benefiting from assets which don’t necessarily form part of the estate i.e. as a result of joint tenancy. For instance, if the Bayview property was held by Lynette and Chris as joint tenants, Chris would be prohibited from taking any benefit under the rules of survivorship. If Chris is convicted of Lynette’s murder he will be precluded from taking a benefit from her estate. Lynette’s two daughters – who are now in their 30s – are likely to be considered the next in line to inherit her estate or any financial benefit Chris received as a result of Lynette’s death.
A civil claim under ‘the forfeiture rule’
Even if Chris is not convicted, a civil case can be launched seeking an order that on the balance of probabilities, he killed his wife and that the forfeiture rule applies. Lynette’s daughters could still apply for forfeiture of their mother’s estate. The fact that person has been acquitted cannot be used as evidence of a person’s innocence in civil proceedings. If Lynette’s daughters were to make a claim, the first question for the court to consider would be whether on the balance of probabilities Chris unlawfully killed Lynette. The second question for the court would be whether the forfeiture rule applied. This would potentially be a very complex exercise involving forensic accounting to work out the current value of Lynette’s estate, given Chris was able to use capital from her estate over a long period of time.
About the author, Lucy McPherson, Senior Associate, Estate Litigation
Lucy is an astute litigation lawyer with vast expertise in complex matters in Qld and NSW estate law.
Her legal career began in 2010 and since she has worked exclusively in the area of estate litigation, driven by a genuine compassion to help clients.
She has an unsurpassed understanding of the discrepancies between NSW and Qld Succession Law and provides advice for clients resolving complex cross-jurisdictional matters.
Lucy has a vast legal knowledge and instills confidence in clients with her determination to help those aggrieved by their family’s decisions, upon their death.
Highly empathetic and compassionate, Lucy is able to assist with:
- family provision claims and defences, and other litigious estate matters in the Supreme Court of New South Wales, the District Court of Queensland and the Supreme Court of Queensland;
- applications for Probate in solemn form;
- applications for construction and rectification of Wills;
- applications for Statutory Wills on behalf of a person who lacks testamentary capacity in the Supreme Court of Queensland and the Supreme Court of New South Wales;
- providing advice on the rights and the role of executors/trustees and the appointment and removal of executors/trustees;
- notional estate orders (within New South Wales);
- cross-border issues where complicated jurisdictional and choice of law questions arise;
- contentious issues arising out of grants of Probate, estate administration and executor’s duties;
- superannuation death benefit/insurance claims and the Superannuation Complaints Tribunal; and
- powers of attorney disputes and compensation to estates.
Lucy is currently studying a Master of Applied Law (Wills & Estates) degree through the College of Law.
Lucy is a valuable member of the Society of Trust & Estate Practitioners (STEP).
STEP is the worldwide professional association for those advising families across generations. STEP promotes best practice, professional integrity and education to their members.
Connect with Lucy on Linkedin: https://www.linkedin.com/in/lucy-mcpherson-63b81960
Please contact our Estate Litigation Department Manager, Amanda Heather on direct line 07 5506 8245, email: firstname.lastname@example.org or free call 1800 621 071 for more information.